A Gun Ownership Primer: Cartridge Choice, Part 1

Having considered the first eleven installments of this series–

A Gun Ownership Primer: The Philosophy Of Gun Ownership 

A Gun Ownership Primer, Part 2: Does Evil Exist?

A Gun Ownership Primer: Is Killing Morally Justified? Part 1 

A Gun Ownership Primer: Is Killing Morally Justified? 

A Gun Ownership Primer: Political Realities, Part 1 

A Gun Ownership Primer: Political Realities, Part 2  

A Gun Ownership Primer: Life-Changing Realities, Part 1

A Gun Ownership Primer: Life-Changing Realities, Part 2

A Gun Ownership Primer: Life-Changing Realities, Part 3 

A Gun Ownership Primer: Revolver or Semiauto? Part 1

A Gun Ownership Primer: Revolver or Semiauto? Part 2 

–perhaps you’ve decided that you prefer semiautomatics over revolvers, and want a compact semiautomatic pistol for daily concealed carry. The next substantial question to be answered is, “what caliber?” Such handguns are available in .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45ACP and a few other common calibers. Which is “best?” As the chart from Glock at the top of the article illustrates, there are many choices available from that manufacturer alone in all of the common handgun size categories, and many, regardless of caliber, are very close to the same size and weight.

Keep in mind that there is no such thing as the perfect gun or cartridge, a universally wonderful combination that works equally well for everyone, or that is so unquestionably superior to everything else available it would be foolish to carry anything else.  While my daily carry gun is a Glock 26 augmented with a few helpful accessories, before that gun was invented, I carried a variety of handguns, including a Glock 19, A Browning BDA .380, a S&W Model 59 (much modified), A Colt Commander, a Browning Hi-Power, and even a Colt Detective Special, to name a few.  Even today I occasionally carry a S&W Bodyguard .380.


Cartridge choices for handguns are relatively simple.  For revolvers, the .38 Special and .357 Magnum predominate.  Federal has recently introduced a .327 Magnum cartridge which produces muzzle energy greater than the 9mm but less than the .40 S&W (in the area of 430 FP), but it remains to be seen if it captures a lasting place in the American cartridge catalogue.  One can also obtain revolvers in .44 Special, .44 Magnum and larger, much more powerful, specialized cartridges most commonly used for hunting, but for most people choosing a revolver, the choice is .38 Special or .357 Magnum.  The .357 is nothing more than a .38 special with a slightly longer case which allows more powder, greater bullet velocity, and therefore, more power.

How much more velocity and power?  Remington provides a handy means to compare such things with their ammunition.  Bullet velocity is commonly measured at the muzzle, 50 and 100 yards for handgun ammunition, and is expressed in feet per second (FPS).  Bullet energy is also measured at those distance points and is expressed in foot pounds (FP).  Bullets are weighed in grains.  I’ve compiled a table using Remington’s data for the six most popular handgun cartridges.  Only the .38 SP and the .357 Magnum are purpose-designed revolver cartridges.

Common Handgun Ammunition Performance
Common Handgun Ammunition Performance

What do these numbers mean?  Generally speaking, the heavier the bullet, and the faster it can be propelled, the better.  This combination will generally result in the greatest amount of energy, which generally results in the greatest potential stopping power.  However, keep in mind that only rifle ammunition has what might be considered true “stopping power,” and even that is subject to various caveats.  The idea that there is such a thing–-particularly in common handgun ammunition–-as a caliber or bullet configuration that will immediately end a deadly threat with a single impact is an iffy proposition.  Much depends upon bullet placement.  All handgun ammunition is a compromise between potential effectiveness and the ability to carry a defensive weapon at all as rifles tend to be hard to carry and particularly to conceal.

I’ve included the 50 and 100 yard figures primarily as a means of comparison for the technically minded.  What really matters is muzzle velocity and energy because very few gunfights take place beyond seven yards (most are much closer, in the area of 7 feet or even less).  At such distances, very little—if any–velocity and energy is lost from the figures obtained at the muzzle.

Notice that the muzzle energy figures for the 9mm and the .45 ACP are similar but their velocity figures are quite different.  The 9mm obviously produces its energy through greater speed while the .45 does it via its much greater bullet weight.  At the same time, the .357 Magnum produces much greater muzzle energy and velocity which might lead us to believe that it is far more effective than the 9mm or the .45, yet real world experience suggests that the .45 is the superior stopper among the three.  The point is that when it comes to stopping power with handguns, there is far more involved than just bullet weight, muzzle energy and velocity, though they are a useful means of basic comparison.

Smaller revolvers like the Ruger LCR are chambered only in .38 special (there is a .357 model, the KLCR-357 which is slightly larger and more solidly built), and while any revolver chambered for .357 magnum will also fire .38 special ammunition, the opposite is not true.

NOTE:  .38 special ammunition may be safely fired in revolvers chambered for .357 magnum, but .357 magnum may not safely be fired in revolvers chambered for .38 special ammunition.  Thankfully, the cylinders of .38 special revolvers are generally too short to chamber .357, but one should never fire ammunition other than that specified by the manufacturer in any weapon.

It would be wise to consider .38 special to be the smallest cartridge appropriate for self defense in revolvers.  Smaller calibers are available, but there is no real advantage in size or otherwise in such weapons.  Revolvers chambered for .357 magnum and larger calibers are themselves larger and heavier, often much larger and heavier, than smaller, short barreled revolvers chambered in .38 special.

Common cartridge choices for semiautos are somewhat more numerous: .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP predominate.

Again, there are a variety of other available cartridges, but these are the primary four.  Of the four, the .40 S&W is the most recent, having been developed from the 10mm cartridge as a shorter cartridge with less brutal recoil characteristics.  the .40 S&W does approximate the performance of some .45 ACP ammunition with lighter bullet weights, while being physically small enough to use the same frames and slides as guns chambered in 9mm.  Generally speaking, none of these cartridges is interchangeable.  Particularly with semiautos, one should load and fire only those cartridges for which a given handgun was designed.

Ruger LCP, .380 ACP
Ruger LCP, .380 ACP

In this genre, the .380 is generally considered the smallest cartridge effective for self-defense.  It is true that people have been stopped and killed by the common .22LR, but simply because it is possible to stop or kill an attacker with a .22 doesn’t means it’s a wise choice of defensive ammunition. Handguns chambered for the .380, such as the polymer Ruger LCP, can be very small and light indeed, but as with very small and light revolvers, tend to have mediocre sights and triggers and because of their very light weight and small size, tend to impart considerably more recoil energy to the shooter.  The muzzle flash and report of these weapons may also be prodigious.  This often results in mediocre accuracy.

Cartridges are commonly named for their bullet diameter and developer, or to clearly differentiate them from similar cartridges.  The .357 Magnum, for instance, fires a bullet whose diameter is 357/1000 of an inch, and the “magnum” designation is intended to denote a more powerful version of the .38 Special, which fires a bullet of the same diameter.  The .357 gains its extra power from a slightly longer case, which allows slightly more gunpowder.  The .40 S&W fires a bullet of 400/1000 inch diameter, and major development work was done by Smith and Wesson.  It is essentially a development of the 10mm cartridge, but the case is slightly shorter to allow smaller framed weapons to fire it with less recoil and less long-term stress on the frame, slide and barrel.  Again, the .40 S&W designation clearly differentiates it from 10mm ammunition, though both fire bullets of essentially the same diameter.  While it is possible to fire .40 S&W ammunition in a handgun chambered for 10mm, the opposite is not true, and again, it is always best to fire only that ammunition for which a gun is specifically chambered, particularly with semiautos.


For self-defense, only jacketed hollow points should be used.  Hollow points have the greatest likelihood of expending more of their energy within a target–thus having the maximum stopping effect–and the least likelihood of over-penetration and ricochet as they will tend to “mushroom” or fragment on impact with solid objects.  Full metal jacket, or “hardball” ammunition–lead bullets fully encased with copper and with rounded noses–are military issue due to international treaties and because of the military need for greater penetration of cover.


These are common 9mm cartridges.  From right to left, is a Remington full metal jacket (FMJ) cartridge, a Remington jacketed hollow point (JHP) cartridge, and a more recent development, a Hornady “Critical Defense” cartridge.  The red polymer insert in the hollow point cavity is designed to prevent clothing fibers from filling the cavity and preventing full expansion of the bullet.

In the military context, it is often better to wound than to kill an enemy.  A wounded enemy takes three people out of the fight: the wounded soldier and two of his comrades to carry him.  FMJ ammunition is entirely appropriate–and much cheaper–for practice, but not for daily carry.

NOTE: Some of our more recent enemies do not share our determination to leave no man behind on the battlefield, nor do they universally try to medically evacuate their wounded.  This may eventually factor into tactics and ammunition design for our military.  It seems rather silly to fret over the potential damage done to an enemy by a hollow point pistol or rifle bullet when we’re simultaneously shooting them with 30mm cannon rounds from attack helicopters, missiles launched from drones, or guided gravity bombs that actually tear them limb from limb or reduce them to atoms.

On February 17, 2013, I published an article titled “Billions And Billions Of Bullets,” dealing with the truly extraordinary numbers of cartridges being purchased by various agencies of the Federal Government, agencies like the Social Security Administration one might think would have no need for such purchases.  The overwhelming majority of handgun cartridges being purchased are hollow points.  As I explained in that article, hollow point ammunition is duty ammunition, ammunition intended for serious, deadly purposes, not training or target practice.  Training/practice ammunition is quite a different matter.

Practice ammunition, whether with lead bullets or jacketed bullets, generally does not use hollow point bullets, and is therefore generally substantially cheaper than carry/duty ammo, however, it is often of lower power and will therefore have different recoil, report and muzzle flash characteristics than carry ammo.  In fact, some light-loaded practice/target ammunition may cause malfunctions in some semiautos.  This is so because their springs must be designed to function with the more powerful carry ammunition.  The lesson is to practice, upon occasion, with the ammunition you intend to carry.

Another significant issue is ammunition cost.  If you’re going to be truly proficient, if you’re going to have the confidence that will help to ensure that you’ll likely be able to avoid having to use a handgun, which should be your preferred outcome, you must practice–and practice correctly–regularly.  Anyone can learn to shoot, but shooting well under pressure is an acquired skill, and a skill that is degraded without consistent, correct practice.

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All of the ammunition that follows was priced in lots of 1000.  This may sound like a great deal of ammunition, but when learning to shoot–particularly if you attend professional schools–this amount of ammo can be consumed with amazing speed.  Revolver cartridges and the .380 can be sometimes difficult to find in 1000 round lots, but when purchased in that quantity, one can usually save $20 or more over the per-box price.  The prices listed are quite close to those of other brands currently for sale on the ammo market.  Hollow point ammunition suitable for concealed carry normally comes in 50 round boxes, but every manufacturer markets ammunition claimed to be nothing short of miraculous in 20 to 25 round boxes at much higher prices.

In revolvers, .38 special ammo is generally cheaper than .357 ammo of the same bullet configuration, and this is particularly true for ammo employing lead bullets.  Be aware, however, that .357 practice ammo with lead bullets is infamous for leaving significant amounts of lead fouling in revolver barrels, requiring time, tools and dedication to remove (too much fouling degrades accuracy and can actually be dangerous).  In semiautos, 9mm ammo is generally much cheaper than the other three most common types and is generally much more readily available.  Checking prices on the Midway USA site (a popular supplier of ammunition and all things gun–I’ve found them uniformly excellent to work with–their web site can be found here) circa early January, 2015, I found these prices for 1000 round lots of common ammunition:

NOTE:  As this article is posted in early January, 2015, the significant national ammunition shortage that drastically drove up ammunition prices is mostly over.  Most common ammunition–with the exception of.22LR–is easier to find and much more plentiful.  Prices are now the same or even slightly lower than when the latest run on ammunition began, but I was able to buy Remington .380 practice ammunition–FMJ, brass cased and reloadable–for about $15.00 per box of 50 cartridges last week at a local WalMart, a reasonable price indeed, and 50 round boxes of steel-cased Russian .380 were going for just over $10.00 per box..  Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats continue to be the greatest ammunition and firearm salesmen America has ever known.

Legend:  LRN: Lead Round Nose.  FMJ: Full Metal Jacket—the bullet is round nosed and fully encased in a copper jacket.  JSP: Jacketed Soft Point—the bullet has a partial jacket with a flattened lead nose exposed.  SJSP: Semi-Jacketed Soft Point–the bullet has a partial jacket with a flattened lead nose exposed.  Bullet weights are expressed in grains.  All are listed in 1000 round case lots.  All have fully reloadable brass.

Magtech .38 Special, 158 Gr. LRN, $309.99

Magtech .357 Magnum, 158 gr. SJSP, $452.99

Magtech .380 ACP, 95 gr. FMJ, $304.99

Magtech 9mm, 115 grain FMJ, $239.99

Magtech .40 S&W, 180 gr. FMJ, $339.99

Magtech .45 ACP, 230 gr. FMJ RN, $409.99

By way of comparison, 1000 rounds of Winchester M.22 .22LR ammunition–-and there are many makes and models chambered for this caliber in revolvers and semiautos–-can currently be had for $52.99, which is actually a reasonable price, but there is a catch: Midway’s catalog lists many different types of .22LR, but virtually every one–including that particular Winchester ammunition, is out of stock with no backorders accepted, which means that Midway has no idea when they’ll have them in stock. This is a common situation throughout the industry. I have not been able–with a single exception–to walk into a gun store, or a WalMart in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex and find any .22LR ammunition on the shelf for more than two years. It is available, but is generally sold out within minutes of appearing on a store shelf.

This is almost certainly the case because for nearly a year, .22LR ammunition was not available at any price. The .22LR is an important, standard cartridge, and few even moderately serious shooters do not have at least one gun chambered for it. Manufacturers have been working feverishly to increase supply, which is finally beginning to catch up with, and will likely surpass demand in the near future. When than happens, shooters will likely no longer feel compelled to buy every round they see and a good selection of .22 ammunition will once again be available on dealer shelves. Prices have, for some time, begun to once again decrease to normal levels–.22LR is generally far less expensive than any centerfire cartridge–but availability is still lagging behind demand, but only due to the contemporary hoarding impulse.

Remember however, .22LR is not a good choice for a self-defense arm, though for a backup gun to be used only at near contact range as a last resort if a primary arm is lost or out of ammunition (an article on just such a weapon is available here), it is a reasonable choice.

The .22LR remains a very versatile cartridge and no shooter should be without at least one .22LR rifle, and arguably, a .22LR handgun, but more about that later.

New Factory Ammunition Alternatives:

The ammunition about which I’ve been speaking to this point is factory loaded with all new components.  A great deal of money can be saved with factory-reloaded–usually marketed as “remanufactured”–ammunition.  Such ammunition is usually loaded with once fired (and properly cleaned and resized) brass and sometimes less expensive bullets.  This allows a manufacturer to provide a line of quality ammunition at very reasonable prices, particularly when compared with their top of the line defensive ammunition.

Such ammunition is virtually always completely reliable, however, it is a good idea to use nothing but first quality ammunition loaded with all new components in a firearm upon which you depend for your safety.

One can also save quite a bit of money by reloading ammunition, which for many people is enjoyable.  Once the necessary equipment has been purchased, the price per round can be lower than even remanufactured ammunition.  Unfortunately, the ammunition shortages of the recent past also significantly drove up the price of reloading components such as brass, bullets, powder and primers. It also limited their availability as ammunition manufacturers generally had first choice. As with factory ammunition, those prices are also returning to normal. However, reloading is labor intensive and time consuming.  Many experienced shooters buy their handgun practice ammunition in bulk and reload only specific, larger rifle cartridges, taking great time and care to produce the most accurate ammunition possible, which is one of the advantage of handloading.

The second part of this series, to be published next week, will cover the primary factors to be considered in choosing a caliber.